Cowboy Junkies Make Folk Classics Their Own on 'Songs of the Recollection'

BY Sarah BeaPublished Mar 23, 2022

Cowboy Junkies have always known how to make a good cover. The long-running Toronto alt-country group broke out into the mainstream in 1988 with The Trinity Session, which went double-platinum in Canada and platinum in the US thanks mainly to the Velvet Underground cover "Sweet Jane." 

Songs of the Recollection, their latest, marks a bit of return to form for the group, seeing them reinventing folk and country tracks from songwriter powerhouses like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Gram Parsons. Here, they put their stamp on iconic songs, transforming the music to match their signature style.

It's a fresh and exciting album that channels the obvious passion these musicians share for the artists being covered. Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar), Peter Timmins (drums) and Alan Anton (bass) have been playing together for almost four decades, and it shows in the vibrancy of their playing. From start to finish, Songs of the Recollection reverberates with the tight-knit energy only found in groups who've played together for a long time.

Songs of the Recollection is, fittingly, a real throwback, reflecting different alt-country stylings from the past 30 years. "No Expectations" features a stripped-down arrangement that calls back to the mid- and late-'90s female-led country pop and rock, while the opening ballad "Five Years" gets a powerfully emotional treatment worthy of David Bowie's original version. "Ooh Las Vegas" features haunting layered contralto vocals that are a bit reminiscent of mid-aughts Neko Case. Nothing in Songs of the Recollection feels particularly innovative, but the musicianship impresses nonetheless.

The clear standout here is "The Way I Feel," first released on a Lightfoot tribute album in 2003. Michael Timmins delivers a guitar solo with just the right amount of grunge, elevating the song by highlighting the darker side of Lightfoot's sound. It's a respectful tribute that really honours the original, but expands the material enough to stand on its own. 

"Marathon," a digital bonus track from Cowboy Junkies' 2011 Vic Chestnutt covers album Demons, is another noteworthy track on the album. It's a slow, moody 6/8 waltz that transforms the original. The Cowboy Junkies version is a droning funeral march with gentle percussion and subtle wails throughout — a distinctly Western take that updates the song for the 21st century while still echoing the past. 

For better or for worse, Songs of the Recollection gives off the impression of going out to see a cover band at the top of their game. It's a bittersweet reminder of the days when live music was more accessible. No doubt existing fans will love this about the album, but newcomers might be turned off by the uniform approach throughout. Still, Songs of the Recollection is a joy to listen to, start to finish.

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